The History of Las Vegas Circa 1940

Downtown Las Vegas in 1942Credit: Flashbak


When the sun rose on the first day of the 20th century, America’s great cities east of the Mississippi were already chugging along with all of the din and clatter that befits a great, bustling metropolis. Factories belched out smoke, clanging streetcars and horse-drawn buggies shared street space in a precarious dance that led to countless near-misses (and the occasional collision), and ubiquitous pushcarts hawked everything from pickles to prayer books. Those were the days when 3.5 million New Yorkers traversed the sidewalks of The Big Apple. Chicago was home to over 1.5 million, and Philadelphians numbered nearly 1.3 million.

Out west, Las Vegas had a thriving population of 22.

In truth, little had changed since businessman and prospector Octavius Gass had moved there 35 years earlier and named it Las Vegas Rancho (to differentiate it from Las Vegas, New Mexico). But in an era when small towns lived or died depending on their proximity to a railroad, Las Vegas Rancho was about to get a kick start. Then a line was laid in 1905 to connect it to the west coast and the nation’s main rail networks. That same year, the town of Las Vegas was officially founded. The first hotel in Las Vegas, Hotel Nevada (now Golden Gate Las Vegas), was founded the next year in 1906.

Over the next decade or two, the settlement gradually grew. Its first newspaper and hotel were established. Nevada outlawed gambling in 1910, but that didn’t stop illegal speakeasies and casinos from taking money from willing customers.


A Look into Las Vegas in the 1940s


Officials Ride Penstock Pipe During Hoover Dam ConstructionSource: Bureau of Reclamation


1931 — A Landmark Year for Las Vegas

Two important developments in 1931 paved the way for Las Vegas to become what it is today. The first was the re-legalization of gambling. The second was Hoover Dam.

Part of FDR’s New Deal, the massive Hoover Dam project (called “Boulder Dam” at the time) drew thousands of workers from around the country. Men were in desperate need of work during the second year of the Great Depression. But they also wanted something to do in their leisure time, and Las Vegas — just a few miles away — was ready to answer the call. Casinos and showgirl venues began popping up on Fremont Street, which was the only paved road in town. And when the dam started producing cheap electricity in 1936, Las Vegas was a benefactor.

The stage was set for something big. And soon, Las Vegas in the 1940s truly took the stage.


El Rancho Las Vegas in 1940sSource: Las Vegas Sun


Birth of the Strip

During the 1930s, Highway 91 was a two-lane, north-south route that ran from Barstow, California to Great Falls, Montana. It went right through Las Vegas, intersecting at Fremont Street, but all that was there were a couple of small nightclubs.

It was hotelier Thomas Hull who put the first hotel-resort on the now-famous thoroughfare. Hull, who already owned several hotels in California, came up with the idea to create a brand that incorporated all the luxuries of a resort into a motor hotel. He had two such locations in Fresno and San Bernardino known as El Rancho. Now he was looking to expand into southern Nevada. Taking a gamble on an off-Fremont Street location, Hull decided to build an establishment on the corner of Highway 91 and Sahara Avenue. The El Rancho Vegas opened on April 3, 1941. It was a modest affair — a low-rise, western-style hotel/casino with 110 rooms — but it was the very first one on what would become the most brightly lit three mile stretch in the world.


Downtown Las Vegas in 1946Source: The Mob Museum


From Small Town to Cultural Phenomenon

Every great idea has its imitators — especially when there is money to be made. Las Vegas slowly became populated with similar resorts. Guy McAfee, a kingpin of illegal gambling in Los Angeles, moved to Vegas after a crackdown in LA led to raids and closings. He bought a gambling joint on Highway 91 called the Pair-O-Dice, renovated it, and renamed it the 91 Club. It was McAfee who first dubbed the stretch “the Strip.” In 1946 he opened the Golden Nugget, a large casino that was decorated to transport customers back to the heady days of the California Gold Rush. The get-rich-quick motif was perfect. Twenty thousand people were invited to the grand opening of the casino, which was outfitted with Italian marble and air conditioning.

In that same year, gangster Bugsy Siegel, backed by Mexican drug money, opened the Flamingo Hotel on the Strip. The swanky establishment was a world apart from the saloon-style gambling halls of the 1930s and before.

More resorts followed over the next few years, the names of which are inseparably linked to the first great Golden Age of Las Vegas: Sahara, Sands, New Frontier, Thunderbird, Desert Inn, Riviera, Dunes, Hacienda, Tropicana, and Stardust. Many were built with money from organized crime, but these gangsters weren’t the machine gun-toting hoodlums of the Capone era. They were savvy businessmen who, in spite of being competitors, worked together to build the greatest gambling mecca in North America.


Vintage Las Vegas in Late 1940sSource: Manis Collection, UNLV


After the War and Beyond

When the Second World War ended in 1945, all restrictions and rationing ended, and Americans were hungry for entertainment and diversions. Las Vegas was one of the only places in the country where gambling was legal. Patrons could hit the casino for slots and blackjack, have a delicious meal, and watch a show with music, singing, and dancing chorus girls, all for a fair price, without leaving their hotel. Tourist traffic boomed. The city’s population gradually grew from a respectable 8,400 in 1940 to triple that amount by the end of the decade.

As the 1940s gave way to the 1950s, the biggest stars of stage and screen began to make Las Vegas a regular stop. Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr., Louis Prima, Tony Bennett, Bing Crosby, Liberace, Andy Williams, Louis Armstrong, and others performed in small venues — 200 to 600 seats — providing a unique opportunity to get an up-close-and-personal look at the A-list celebrities of the day. In 1951, a filet mignon dinner and Frank Sinatra concert at the Desert Inn cost a whopping $6.25. And an appropriate tip for the maître d’ could mean a front-row seat.

Most of that original Strip is gone today. Many of those legendary resorts — the Desert Inn, Dunes, Hacienda, Klondike, New Frontier, Sands, Stardust, Thunderbird — can be seen only in old pictures. The ones that remain have been upgraded and renovated to the point where they look nothing like they once did. And the gangsters have been replaced by large corporations.

To most people, though, none of that really matters. Las Vegas is still among the top 10 most visited cities in the United States. But there are some old-timers who still remember Las Vegas in its glory days of the 1940s and 1950s when food and entertainment were cheap, the resorts were small and intimate, and Nevada’s playground in the desert reflected simpler times. At Circa Las Vegas Resort & Casino, we aim to honor the golden ages of Las Vegas circa 1940, 1980, 2020 and more, so stop by for some vintage Las Vegas vibes and make some history of your own.